On the afternoon of May 29, 1927, the newly completed French Line liner Ile de France laid waiting at her fitting out basin in Saint-Nazaire, France as the scheduled two o’clock departure for her sea trials approached. Captain Joseph Blancart stood by on the liner’s bridge, waiting for the tugboats that would escort the liner through the basin’s narrow entrance. The entrance to the basin was less than eight feet wider than the ship herself and maneuvering the 43,000-ton liner would require slow and cautious navigation by the tugs past the concrete piers on either side of the opening. Spanning the basin entrance was an enormous drawbridge where a port lieutenant would need to give the order to raise the drawbridge to accommodate the liner’s passage underneath.
Steam was raised in the liner’s boilers as the captain scanned the basin looking for the liner’s tugboat escorts so they could get under way. Captain Blancart felt he had a few moments to spare and adjourned to his office to complete some obligatory paperwork. There, suddenly, he felt the unmistakable distant trembling of the ship’s engines. Unbelievably, he thought, the Ile de France was moving. Incredulous, he rushed to the bridge to find that someone, somehow, had erroneously given orders to drop the mooring lines and get under way. The unthinkable had happened and the ship was quickly moving away from her berth into the tiny basin.
Rapidly gaining momentum, the Ile’s foremast was approaching the boom of a shipyard crane extended out over the basin. Blancart instinctively put the ship’s helm hard over and the Ile’s foremast breezed past the boom with only feet to spare. At once the captain grabbed the engine controls and ordered and engines into full reverse. From the engine room, his order was countered with another calamity, a message that the engine controls were frozen, meaning the engines could not be reversed or stopped.
The white-faced captain had two equally agonizing options and only moments to respond. He could ram his brand new liner through the looming and still-lowered drawbridge that lay directly ahead, or he could attempt to beach the run-away liner by crashing into a wooden pier near the entrance to the basin. Ramming the drawbridge could cause massive damage to the liner’s superstructure but her hull could better withstand the damage entailed by running the ship aground on the pier.
The captain actually had his hand on the ship’s wheel, with tears in his eyes he said later, to turn towards the wooden pier when he noticed, miraculously, the drawbridge over the basin entrance was beginning to rise. Quickly appraising the situation, the captain changed course and headed the Ile towards the basin opening and deftly guided the swiftly moving 41,000-ton liner through the narrow basin entrance, with barely four feet of clearance on either side. As the Ile glided underneath the raised drawbridge into open water, her mortified chief engineer announced that the liner’s engine controls had been restored. Blancart ordered the engines into full reverse and the liner thundered to a stop. The anchors were dropped and the Ile de France was safely at rest.
The actions of the fast-thinking port official, in part, saved the afternoon. As he noticed the Ile de France leave her pier without tugs in attendance and without the captain on her flying bridge, he realized that something was seriously wrong and dashed to open the drawbridge for the liner to pass.
Although extreme carelessness had created the near catastrophe, the aplomb that the emergency was met with was remarkable, and some might say, typical. It was this type of daring and panache that marked the long career of the Ile de France. Her revolutionary Art Deco interiors were unlike anything previously seen on the North Atlantic. Her glittering passenger lists of the 1920’s and 1930’s were the envy of other shipping lines: Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, John D. Rockefeller, Bernard Baruch, Buster Keaton, Pola Negri, Barbara Hutton, Maurice Chevalier, Will Rogers, Cary Grant, Marie Curie, Prince Rainer of Monaco and Arturo Toscanini were but a few of the luminaries that graced the salons of the Ile de France. Captain Joseph Blancart and his chief purser, Henri Villar, became celebrities themselves.
The Ile de France served heroically in World War II, carrying tens of thousands of troops to the far-flung regions of Saigon, Bombay, Singapore and Cape Town. In peacetime, the Ile de France came to the rescue of other ships nine times during her career without ever having suffered a serious accident of her own. Most notably, she rescued more than 700 survivors from the stricken Andrea Doria following her collision with the Stockholm in 1956.
Although neither the fastest nor the largest liner of her time, the Ile de France had a penchant for attracting the famous, the talented and the youthful and her special chic and verve insured her place in the pantheon of immortal Atlantic liners. Author John Malcolm Brining, in his book “The Sway of the Grand Saloon” said of the Ile de France: “She was handsome without being grand, comfortable without being overstuffed, class-conscious without living by exclusions.”